Active Listening

In addition to listening our ears serve many purposes. Three of the most important are balance, coordination, and body movement. I believe this vestibular balance can be applied to relationships. Balance, coordination, and body movement (eye contact, no phones, body alignment). These are the ingredients of active listening.

Approach with wonder
If you are in conversation assuming that you already know exactly how another person is thinking and feeling, you close yourself off from discovering something new about another’s perspective. Cultivating curiosity is about meeting another with a sense of openness and a willingness to learn. Practice this by asking for more details, seeking clarification where needed, and mindfully noting any assumptions or judgments held. Learning from another is the richest of experiences. 

Tune into your inner silence
As the legendary Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Han discussed in his book, How To Love, to truly listen depends on a kind of inner silence. It requires that we empty ourselves and make space to receive something new. It’s a fact that most people have formulated what they want to say before the other person has even stopped speaking. Tuning into your inner silence is not about denying your own needs, feelings, or beliefs. Rather, it is about setting your own views aside for a time to better understand the experience of another. If the mind races while your partner speaks, you can come back to your inner silence simply by noticing your breath and then returning open attention to the person.

Listen to understand rather than to respond
What is your intention when listening? Are you listening to understand or to respond? It is not uncommon when someone is speaking to formulate a counter argument. However, true listening requires presence and a yearning to understand. Moving into a place of understanding does not mean condoning a particular behavior or agreeing with a certain belief; it simply means you are open to seeing where another person is coming from. It is indeed possible to understand and to validate without agreeing.

Practice
The couples therapist Harville Hendrix teaches a deceptively simple strategy of reflection (from Imago Therapy). Being able to reflect or mirror what the other person is saying without adding anything or changing the context is not easy. This mirroring might seem awkward at first, but it creates a practice of actually hearing the other person and letting them know that they were heard. I call it passing the baton. Taking turns listening intently, and reflecting exactly what was heard teaches communication in a different way than we are used to.

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